UPDATE: On October 28, six days after it was put into place, Austin’s boil water advisory was lifted. City officials said that the water is now safe to drink out of the tap, but are asking residents to curb consumption for things like lawn maintenance, washing vehicles, or refilling spas or pools. That is expected to last through Monday.
Austin is under a boil water advisory, and as of Thursday morning it is still very unclear when the boil water notice and the water shortage will end. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Wednesday that the city’s water production is out of the red, finally producing more water than the city is consuming, though the city is still asking that people conserve water. The city also opened some water distribution sites across the city. There are seven sites available for “those with special needs, who are unable to boil water, unable to purchase, or need bottled water for work,” according to a city press release, and the distribution centers are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Here’s where they are:
* Walnut Creek Park (12138 N Lamar Blvd)
* City of Austin Warehouse, formerly Home Depot (7211 N IH 35 SVRD NB)
* Roy G. Guerrero Park (400 Grove Blvd)
* Onion Creek Soccer Complex (5600 E William Cannon Dr)
* Dick Nichols Park (8011 Beckett Rd)
* Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex (10211 W. Parmer Ln)
* Circuit of the Americas (9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd)
Here’s everything you need to know.
I have been living under a rock and am just now learning about this “boil water notice.” When did this happen, and why is it happening?
The notice was issued by the City of Austin early Monday morning, October 22, 2018. It has remained in effect since then.
This is upsetting. Who can I blame? I would like to write an angry letter.
Well, right now there is no one to write an angry letter to, so maybe hold off on that. You can blame the weather, though. Austin and the surrounding region have been absolutely hammered by rain. Last month was the wettest September on record in Texas, leading to terrible flooding in the Hill Country. Governor Greg Abbott declared eighteen Central Texas counties disaster areas. This was what the Llano River looked like flowing through Llano last week:
Lifethreatning ongoing flooding in and around Llano, TX#Llano bridge. This morning 40+ft - only 1+ft away from record 1935. (unsure of current flood stage)— Live Storm Chasers (@Livestormchaser) October 16, 2018
The Llano river is seeing nearly the worst flooding on record, a lot of damage has been done. #TXwx #LlanoBridge pic.twitter.com/jM1tLLWbXj
You can see in the video how brown and dirty the water looks. You would not want to drink that, right? The Llano River flows into the Colorado River, and after heavy rains caused record water levels in Lake Travis and the opening of several flood gates, the Colorado River has essentially become a fast-moving pile of mud and silt similar to what we saw in Llano. That’s bad for water quality. It takes a lot longer to clean out all the junk, and the city’s water plants can’t realistically filter out all the bad stuff quickly enough to produce enough safe water for everyone in Austin. “Anyone who’s seen the water running through Lady Bird Lake can see how muddy it is,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a press release. “The unprecedented rain and runoff through our entire lake system has simply overwhelmed our treatment capacity.”
How bad is it, and how long will it last?
As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, county officials said the ban could last ten to fourteen days, though Greg Meszaros, director of the water department of the City of Austin, said a few hours later that he doesn’t anticipate the issue to last “beyond a handful of days.”
Travis County’s Chief Emergency Management Coordinator Eric Carter told the Austin American-Statesman the advisory is affecting at least 888,000 people in the city. The Statesman has a handy breakdown of who is and isn’t affected. You are under the boil water advisory if you live in the cities of Austin, West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Sunset Valley, or if you’re serviced by the West Travis County Public Utility Agency (which includes customers in Bee Cave and Dripping Springs) or are in Travis County Water District 10 (which includes the City of West Lake Hills and major subdivisions of Westwood, Rolling Hills West, Knollwood, Westlake Highlands, Sundown Parkway, Camelot, and the original Rob Roy Ranch) or are serviced by the Crossroads Utility Service (the Rough H0llow area of Lakeway).
You are NOT under the boil water advisory if you’re in the cities of Round Rock, Pflugerville, Kyle, Cedar Park, or live in the Hurst Creek Municipal Utility District (which serves the Village of the Hills in Lakeway area) or Barton Creek Lakeside in Spicewood or are a resident of Brushy Creek MUD or of the Water Control and Improvement District 17 (which includes Steiner Ranch, Hudson Bend, North Lakeway, and Serene Hills) or Cypress Ranch Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 (Spicewood communities of West Cypress Hills and Sola Vista).
Whoa. Ten to fourteen days? 888,000 people affected? Is this crisis breaking some kind of record?
Not yet. Citywide boil water advisories are rare but not as rare as you would expect. While advisories like this are not being tracked nationally, which makes it hard to hold this one up against others, a Huffington Post analysis of a single month in 2016 found “142 separate incidents in 27 different states involving at least some residents in a city or town being told to boil their water for at least 24 hours.” The Austin area alone has seen a handful of concentrated neighborhood advisories over the past few years, when some residents were under an advisory for shorter periods of time, mostly due to water-main breaks or other water system issues that required simple maintenance. But this is the first time Austin has issued an advisory like this for the entire city’s water system.
The last time a Texas city experienced a water crisis this bad was in 2015. Corpus Christi residents endured four separate water quality incidents over a seventeen-month span, beginning in July 2015, when the city issued a boil water notice after discovering E. coli contamination in water samples. That notice lasted two days. Later that year, in September, the city again issued a boil water notice, this time due to low levels of chlorine. That one lasted ten days. In May 2016, the city issued yet another boil water advisory after water tested positive for nonharmful bacteria—that ban lasted nineteen days. The city was again without safe tap water for four days in December 2016, after a chemical asphalt emulsifier leaked from a private industrial site into the water supply. The December crisis was arguably the most dire, as residents were told to stop using tap water for anything, including drinking, showering, or brushing teeth. There was essentially nothing they could do to make the water any safer, either, including boiling it, “freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting the water stand,” according to a city news release.
So Austin’s current crisis doesn’t quite stack up against Corpus’s multifaceted systemic water issues or the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the mind-bogglingly long water boil advisory endured by the people of the Neskantaga First Nation, in Canada, where about 350 people were without safe tap water for an astounding 22 years, until the ban was finally lifted in July 2017. That certainly isn’t meant to minimize the seriousness of Austin’s water situation, but it does help to put things in perspective.
What can’t I use unboiled tap water for?
Don’t drink it, obviously. Avoid using ice made from tap water—frozen bacteria are not dead bacteria. Try not to brush your teeth with unboiled water. Don’t use unboiled tap water to wash dishes. Don’t use it in your food prep—make sure you wash your fruits and veggies with boiled water. Don’t feed it to your pets. If you have to wash dishes by hand, you need to use hot and soapy water, but all rinsing should be done with water that has been boiled. Don’t make baby formula without boiled or bottled water.
What can I use unboiled tap water for?
It’s fine for laundry and bathing, including showering and hand washing. But that’s about it. Luckily, it only takes about three minutes to properly boil a small pot of water, and bottled water is a safe alternative, too, if you can get it.
What about the water shortage I keep hearing about? What’s happening, and what can I do to keep things from getting worse?
When the boil water notice was first issued, the city also urged people to cut down on their water consumption. Water availability quickly became a full-blown crisis of its own, and on Monday Meszaros issued “emergency restrictions” prohibiting all use of outdoor water until further notice. That means no water can be used for irrigation equipment, to wash vehicles (including commercial car wash facilities), to wash pavement or other outdoor surfaces, to add water to pools or spas, or to operate a fountain or ornamental pond (or at least don’t use any more water than is needed to keep any aquatic life from going belly-up).
The city is asking people to cut down their overall water usage by 15 to 20 percent. You can take shorter showers, put off doing the dishes or laundry, and, of course, follow the golden rule for all water shortages: if it’s yellow, let it mellow.
Austin water treatment plants can currently produce approximately 105 million gallons of water per day, according to a city press release. As of Tuesday morning, Austinites were using about 120 million gallons per day. Water reservoir levels are running very low. “Immediate action is needed to avoid running out of water,” the city said in a press release. “This is an emergency situation.”
I don’t want to listen to the city. I don’t even have a good reason, I just don’t want to do it! [Gulps down gallon after gallon of cold tap water.]
Yeah, don’t do that. That’s dumb. According to the city press release, “inadequately treated water may contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites which can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. They pose special health risk for infants, young children, some of the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems.”
I’ve seen photos of long lines and empty shelves at H-E-B. Is the apocalypse coming? Should I prepare accordingly and flee to my safe house deep in the Hill Country? Who do I need to fight to get a bottle of water?
If you’re under the boil water advisory, then the shelves of your local H-E-B or other grocery store probably have looked pretty empty since Monday, as concerned residents flocked to the water aisle and quickly bought all the bottled water.
This photo, contributed by @brittanyshulman, shows the bottled water aisle cleared out at the H-E-B located on Far West Blvd. this morning.— Austin Statesman (@statesman) October 22, 2018
Our full story on the boil water notice: https://t.co/e3VRezrSMh pic.twitter.com/9y2raaK2A4
Don’t worry if you didn’t beat the rush. H-E-B said Monday in a press release that they began sending more water to Austin as soon as they were notified about the water boil notice. The store announced plans “to send more than 100 trailers of water” that day and to continue to send water “as needed.” They quickly limited customers to four cases of bottled water or four gallons per purchase.
Hang tight with us Austin- 100 trailers of water are on the way! Our top priority is making sure our stores are replenished as quickly as possible to support the needs of our customers during the boil order. https://t.co/KpDcp6FHG5 pic.twitter.com/LBqku91MwH— H-E-B (@HEB) October 22, 2018
“We’re not running out of water in Texas or in the country,” Mayor Adler told KXAN on Tuesday. “So water is going to continue to arrive. As people are buying water, there’s more water coming in that’s going to replenish the supply. So there’s not a scarcity of water. I mean, it’s certainly convenient to have the bottled water, but frankly, you’d probably save a lot more time than going to the store and waiting in line if you just boiled a little water at home. It works just as well.” Adler also said grocery store suppliers are bringing in “truck after truck” of bottled water and that cities including Fort Worth and San Antonio are “sending down their big tanker trucks.”
Local businesses are chipping in too. Black Star Co-op brewery apparently has some boiled water available for Austinites.
What about food? Are restaurants open?
A lot of businesses, especially restaurants, depend on water for everything from food preparation to employee cleanliness, so this has understandably forced many restaurants and cafes to temporarily shut down or modify their hours of operation. A lot of places closed down Monday, including Hat Creek Burgers, Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard, and Soup Peddler, according to the Austin American-Statesman. P. Terry’s remained open but did not serve soft drinks Monday, and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport shuttered its restaurants and closed its water fountains, according to the Austin Chronicle.
Okay, but more importantly, how does this affect my morning coffee addiction? I need coffee more than water or food, for without it I cannot function and will morph into a disgusting, bleary-eyed slug.
You might be out of luck if you try to hit up your favorite coffee shop. Starbucks stores were open but are not serving coffee or espresso drinks, according to the Statesman. Bennu Coffee has had a limited menu, only serving cold brew. According to the Austin Business Journal, Houndstooth Coffee locations in downtown Austin and on North Lamar Boulevard were closed through at least Monday, but a location on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard remained open, and Dolce Neve on South First Street was serving gelato but not coffee or tea.
You can always make your own coffee, if it’s so important. Just remember to use boiled water.
How will I know when the advisory is lifted, and what do I do then?
Well, for starters, you could follow the news: check out the Austin American-Statesman’s print edition or website, and any of your local broadcast television news stations are also covering the situation closely. There are regular updates on the Austin Water Utility’s Facebook and Twitter pages, too. Once the advisory is lifted, according to the city, you should “flush your water system by running all cold water faucets in your home for at least one minute, cleaning automatic ice makers by making and discarding three batches of ice, and running water softeners through a regeneration cycle.”